The Business Case for Opt-In

One of the great things about being a ClickZ columnist is feedback from readers. They share experiences, ask follow-up questions to articles, and seek advice on their own email marketing efforts. I try to respond to everyone who emails me (some months I don’t succeed, but I try!). Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say. Take, for example, the email I occasionally get from people who are sending unsolicited commercial email (UCE), often referred to as spam.

I always assume (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) those people are new to email marketing and don’t understand what they are doing. I try to answer their questions in a way that’s educational, not preachy. It’s not always easy. Most UCE’ers believe the anti-UCE argument is based on ivory-tower principles. I try to convey there’s actually a strong business case to be made for opt-in.

In that vein, here’s a “best of.” I’ve compiled the best phrases and sentences from actual emails I’ve received from what I’m going to call UCE’ers, along with my responses to them that make a business case for opt-in.

UCE’er: “We do not want to contribute to the spam problem…”

This phrase is usually followed by a “but.” Here’s the rub: If you send UCE, you are contributing to the spam problem. If you email to lists containing addresses extracted, scraped, harvested, engineered, compiled, or otherwise gathered without permission, you are contributing to the spam problem. Did you buy a large chunk of email addresses on a CD-ROM? Are you working with a questionable list broker? You are contributing to the spam problem. The only way not to is to use opt-in lists, preferably your own house lists or lists rented from a reputable list broker.

UCE’er: “I was not concerned about spam accusations because I felt the quality of the [product” was so good [recipients” would be glad to receive the information.”

Spam is in the eye of the recipient. It doesn’t matter how high quality you feel your product or service is. If you’re promoting it via UCE, you open yourself (and rightly so) to spam accusations. You are also tarnishing the reputation of your product and your company.

UCE’er: “To be quite honest, I am getting sick and tired of the spam complaints that are mixed in with legitimate business inquiries…. Is there any software that can be used to cloak ourselves?”

Spam complaints come with the territory. If you’re sending UCE, people will call you on it. That translates to spam complaints, blacklists, problems with your ISP, and other issues. Trying to hide your identity isn’t the answer (and can be illegal). Changing a policy that is causing complaints is the solution.

UCE’er: “The results were disappointing… only 2 percent clicked through to our Web site with 0 [conversions”.”

Non-opt-in lists don’t perform as well as opt-in lists. There’s a strong business case to be made for opt-in, including:

  • According to an IMT Strategies study, 61 percent of email recipients are eager or curious to read email they have opted-in to receive.

  • The same study also showed that 77 percent of email recipients said they delete UCE without reading it.
  • A Quris study found 52 percent of respondents said they delete email from unknown senders without reading it; 21 percent said they opened it but were annoyed.
  • IMT Strategies found that over 80 percent of email users have granted marketers permission to send occasional email promotions.
  • IMT Strategies also found that less than one-third of recipients responded to UCE more than once, and spam caused “very negative” reactions from 64 percent of customers studied.
  • According to Forrester Research, “Campaigns built on explicit consumer permission win every time compared with the spamming mentality of opt-out email campaigns…. [Opt-in” has a positive effect on both acquisition and retention marketing… The response rates for opt-in… make this the only choice for consumer savvy marketers.”

UCE’er: “I’m sure no opt-in lists exist… in the categories we need.”

List selection is both an art and a science, whether for email or postal lists. It’s great to find exactly the list you need, but often you’ll need to be a little creative with your selections.

I worked with an organization targeting investors. We used many lists of names of subscribers to financial newsletters, and they worked well. We also tested lists of cigar smokers and wine connoisseurs and found, in some instances, they were very effective. Why? Because people who have the time and money to be involved with these types of hobbies probably have an interest in the stock market. It’s too simplistic to say no opt-in lists exist for your target market.

You may need to rent an opt-in list knowing only a portion are in your key target market, for instance, renting an opt-in list of intellectual property attorneys, even though you only want to reach those who specialize in mechanical patents. Another option would be to look for other ways to promote online. Ads in reputable opt-in email newsletters that target your audience can be effective, as can pay-for-placement and search engine optimization.

To take it a step further: If there’s no opt-in list that meets your needs, can there be a non-opt-in list that does? I’d be very suspicious. How can someone who created a list via extraction, harvesting, or opt-out claim hers is a highly targeted list? She doesn’t know. She doesn’t have a relationship with those people. Buyer beware.

UCE’er: “So you won’t consult for me since I won’t commit to using opt-in lists?”

That’s right. I’m not going to waste your money (or my time) putting together an email marketing campaign for a list that isn’t opt-in. The list is the most critical element of an email marketing campaign. We’d be starting with two strikes against us and placing limitations on our success right out of the box. Marketing to an email list that isn’t opt-in just doesn’t make good business sense.

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